|The Trivialization of Armageddon|
Issue #29 (January 1984)
I believe that the recent much-ballyhooed showing of the television "docudrama" The Day After launched a process that may ultimately increase the chances of a nuclear holocaust. This is the process by which frightening possibilities that we cannot avoid are made familiar, and ultimately trivial, by being converted into entertainment.
[quoteright]Every society evolves ways of dealing with ineluctable tragedies - death, disease, hunger, war, crime, and so on. People can treat the disasters of life as problems to be solved, celebrating their victories over them and bearing up under their losses; or they can sweep them under the rug as taboo in speech and action; or they can convert them into trivial forms, which are no longer painful to contemplate.
A good example of the head-on approach is our attitude toward disease and hunger. These problems seem, at least in theory, to be solvable; so we continue to work on them, talk about them, and treat them as serious. Death, on the other hand, Is unavoidable. We can't do anything about it, so we stop talking about it. More than that, we make talking about it taboo - or, in a less anthropological context, bad taste. Why clutter up our lives with useless hand-wringing?
The third approach, trivialization, works best when a problem touches only part of the community. Then the majority can safely contemplate it as non-threatening. Crime Is a good example. As long as the police are working effectively, so that "criminals" are a stereotypic minority, the problem can be presented as good old cops-and-robbers. The bad guys, who wear loud suits and live in night clubs, snarl menacingly at each other and ultimately wind up shooting it out with the cops on a deserted rooftop. When plugged (their invariable fate), they clutch their midsections and silently drop to the ground, from whence they can be cleanly removed to unmarked graves. None of the nastiness (spouting blood, piteous screams, entrails dragging on the ground) that actually occurs when one person kills another is shown. We combine good entertainment with the feeling that another social problem is under control.
Our attitude toward nuclear armageddon has exhibited both the problem-solving and the taboo phases. We have grappled with disarmament proposals and we have tried to bury the problem in the jargon of "low-yield devices" and "delivery systems." Now we appear to be ready to try out the trivialization approach. While the ostensive purpose of The Day After was to put new life into our efforts at problem-solving, its actual effect was to introduce the idea that maybe the holocaust would make good TV material. If we just trim off the nasty parts such as people vomiting to death from radiation sickness or killing each other over the last unopened can of tuna - we could call the remainder entertainment.
The TV biz, always voracious for new subjects, will be quick to catch on. The start will probably be fairly serious:
But once the stereotypes have been established and After the Bomb has become a new genre in American fiction, can the sitcom be far behind?
The difficulty with all of this, of course, Is that a problem doesn't disappear just because it has been trivialized. In fact, it usually gets worse. Again, crime is a good example. Violence didn't take to the streets until it had been made commonplace on the TV screen. People have a hard time distinguishing between the original human tragedy, which continues and grows, and the sanitized version fed to them by the marketers of "entertainment." Since the sanitized version needs no fixing, they put less energy into the reality.
I am afraid. I am afraid that we are going to stop trying to solve the problem of nuclear stockpiling and turn it into a TV game. This will be fine as long as those ugly machines in Siberia and North Dakota stay in their holes. But as the Big Boom becomes more and more familiar, the likelihood increases that some addled politician will try it out. (Why not? Last night on the tube, it almost looked like fun). Then we will all get a bigger dose of reality than anybody wanted.
Perhaps it would help if someone would point out that in a nuclear holocaust, the electromagnetic pulse will destroy all TV sets first. This should strike terror in certain circles that no contemplation of megadeaths or radiation levels ever could.
George Towner was born in Reno and grew up near Berkeley. As a teenager he began making gangster movies using an old 8mm camera, one of which featured a car being pushed over a cliff off State Highway 1. He has started and sold two successful technology firms, and currently works for Apple Computer, where he is the most senior in age. He lives with his wife in Sunnyvale. They have two daughters and a son.